Promising Developments in Online and Technological Accessibility


Published 2013-02-07 -- The US may have a series of laws related to online accessibility but the laws have not had the effect of making the Internet widely accessible for people with disabilities in America.

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Definition: Defining the Meaning of Accessibility

Accessibility - The degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible. Accessibility can be viewed as the "ability to access" and benefit from some system or entity. The concept often focuses on people with disabilities or special needs (such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and their right of access, enabling the use of assistive technology.

Main Document

The United States of America may have a series of laws related to online accessibility, but the laws have unfortunately not had the effect of making the Internet widely accessible for people with disabilities in America. One of the biggest reasons why is because the mere existence of regulations and laws is simply not enough. There is also a great need for established mechanisms to develop guidelines, promote innovation, monitor compliance, as well as to provide meaningful enforcement powers. In America there is no such agency; issues with online accessibility are spread across agencies and many times no one group has monitoring or enforcement roles with the laws and regulations that exist, including the loophole of, "undue-burden," which is being abused. Recent years; however, have found a surge in the federal government's focus on accessibility.

March of 2010 found the Access Board releasing a draft for public comment of the first major revision of Section 508 and the accessibility provisions of the Telecommunications Act. The intent was for new guidelines to be adopted in 2010 or 2011 to cover cell phones, telephones, PDA's, mobile devices, Web sites, computer hardware and software, media players and electronic documents to be released. The guidelines, if implemented as suggested, would find the principles of accessibility considerably strengthened and the focus placed mainly on motor and sensory impairments.

The reason behind the focus on motor and sensory impairments has largely to do with the concrete nature of the accommodations needed. There is a 30 year track record of existing research on ways to successfully design computer interfaces for people who experience motor and sensory impairments. Unfortunately, there is a shorter history and fewer guidelines related to how to design interfaces for people who experience cognitive impairments.

June of 2010 found the Departments of Justice and Education taking the step of issuing a joint statement, an unusual move, to educational institutions. The Departments said the use of inaccessible e-book readers and other devices by elementary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions was indeed a violation of Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many e-book texts and readers are not accessible to people who experience visual impairments. The movement by some universities to require the use of e-books was neglecting the needs of both students and faculty members with visual impairments.

Educational institutions had to consider the accessibility of not only computers and the Internet, but of mobile Internet-enabled types of technologies too. There is no specific prohibition against using accessible e-book readers or other types of mobile devices, simply the obligation for educational institutions to make sure that any of the technologies they use do not exclude students and faculty members with disabilities. By July of 2010, a memo from the Office of Management and Budget and the federal chief information officer announced that while the Justice Department had not collected data on compliance since the year 2003, it would in conjunction with the Government Services Administration by Fall of 2010.

July of 2010 also found the Department of Justice beginning a pursuit of a series of revisions to the ADA itself to account for changes in society and technologies since the passage of the law. The updates included accessibility of movie theaters, self-service machines, furniture design, access to 911, and Web site accessibility. Web site accessibility is a significant proposal because it clearly extends the coverage of the ADA to the Web sites of every entity covered by the ADA - places of public accommodation, local and state governments. The requirements of the ADA would widely apply to commerce and entertainment online and resolve the disagreements in the courts concerning the applicability of the ADA to e-commerce. Of course, any strengthened regulations would only hold value if they are complied with, monitored, and enforced.

By October of 2010 the President signed the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act into law. It includes provisions to:

  • Expand the use of closed captioning and video description for content online
  • Facilitate accessible communications equipment and services such as text messaging and e-mail
  • Promote access to Internet services that are built into mobile telephone devices such as smartphones
  • Require devices of any size to be capable of displaying closed captioning, delivering available video description, and making emergency information accessible

The old loophole remains; however. As with prior technological guidelines, the new standards still include the ability to opt out if an, 'undue-burden,' exists.

Promotion of Greater Accessibility

Federal and state government does pursue enforcement of the laws that exist related to accessibility, yet the goals and intended outcomes of accessibility deserve more consideration that they currently receive. Plainly, the most important goal is increased access to communication, information, and services that are increasingly central to employment, education, civic participation, as well as government. Accessibility laws and regulations have the potential to:

  • Make evaluation easier
  • Foster the creation of better-quality tools for developers
  • Provide incentives for creating new types of technologies
  • Make technologies that exist usable by a broader range of people
  • Involve people with disabilities in the development of technologies and regulations
  • Educate the general populace about the importance of equal access for people with disabilities

During the year 2010 the United States government moved to strengthen policies and regulations related to Web accessibility - it was not enough.

  • Evaluation of compliance
  • Improvement of enforcement
  • increasing the availability of information about compliance

All of these are necessary in order to promote and improve Web accessibility. There are several potential actions that may be taken to promote accessibility within government and industry.

The main concept to bear in mind is that the technical solutions for Web accessibility are already in existence. Coding standards for accessibility already exist - so do evaluation methods and testing tools. The fact that the technical knowledge already exists means the main challenges involve the dissemination of knowledge, compliance, and enforcement. A sizable reconceptualization of the approaches to accessibility monitoring and enforcement is needed.

Creation of a Chief Accessibility Officer within the federal government to deal specifically with information and communications technology accessibility is needed. The Microsoft Corporation has just such an officer and the position has led to improvements in accessibility of the company's interfaces. While the White House currently has a special adviser on disability policy, the person deals with all issues related to disability policy - not computer interfaces specifically.

Compiling best practices in relation to processes for monitoring and enforcement of Section 508 within agencies is also needed. While the Web site currently has a link for such practices, it does not provide people with information except for technical specifications, and a number of the links are broken. Agencies need to have guidance on how to monitor and enforce compliance.

Increased openness and transparency requirements explaining how agencies can make sure their Web sites are compliant with Section 508 is important and needed. For example; while a number of federal Web sites have an accessibility statement that simply notes that their site is Section 508-compliant, there is limited information about what specific features make the site compliant, how the site was evaluated, or how the site maintains compliance. Currently, there are no requirements for federal Web sites to provide any information regarding site accessibility.

Frequently posting public evaluations of site accessibility across the government would prove helpful in bring issues to light. For example; the progress dashboard on the open government page at the While House describes how agencies are making progress towards the goals required by the Open Government Initiative. It would help to have similar information posted about agency progress toward accessibility and Web sites.

It is important to alter laws to reduce the ability of covered entities to avoid compliance through the, 'undue-burden,' loophole. The clauses have been abused by corporations and government agencies to opt out of compliance with accessibility guidelines. 'Undue-burden,' was originally conceived as a tool only to be used in a limited number of circumstances in which significant effort or expense would lead to the additional inclusion of a small number of users, or in which the cost or effort were just beyond the resources of an organization. In practice, it is being abused on a regular basis by companies and government agencies as a way to avoid a number of accessibility considerations, despite the level of effort or cost involved. As long as the loophole exists, a number of accessibility guidelines will lack any meaningful force.

Creation of a government enforcement agency that is devoted to accessibility monitoring and enforcement is essential, and could be headed by the new Chief Information Officer. Instead of continuing a decentralized approach, the agency could:

  • Support research
  • Create regulations
  • Monitor and enforce compliance
  • Better include persons with disabilities in the development of accessibility regulations
  • Educate the public and government employees on the importance of accessibility as an issue of inclusion and civil rights

Without changes like these, people with disabilities will lack the ability to participate fully in online opportunities in employment, education, government, and communication. To be plain, people with disabilities need accessibility to be included as equal members in our information society. Public policy has promoted the rights of people with disabilities in America for forty years and as technology evolves, so must the legal guarantees of rights for people with disabilities in this nation.

Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act

The new law contains groundbreaking protections to enable people with disabilities to access broadband, digital and mobile innovations - the emerging 21st century technologies for which the act is named.

21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (NAD)

In summary, the "Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act," when passed would update the Communications Act and establish new safeguards for disability access to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind as technology changes and the United States migrates to the next generation of Internet-based and digital communication technologies.

Related Information:

Assistive Computer Devices & Software - Disabled World
The Reasons Behind Online Accessibility - Examines website accessibility and discusses technical specifications explaining how to build interfaces that are accessible to people with disability - (Published 2013-02-04).
People with Disabilities and Technology Challenges - For people with disabilities the majority of Internet related technologies are created inaccessible and cut out some or even all users with disabilities - (Published 2013-02-02).
Improving Internet Access for the Aging, Disabled with Open Source - Open Source Community Paves Way for Developers to Improve Internet Access for the Aging Disabled - (Published 2010-08-04).
People with Disabilities, Jobs and Technological Accessibility in America - Some of todays technologies enable us to interact with each other on business levels despite a persons disability - (Published 2011-07-13).

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